The outcome of the 2008 election is going to depend almost entirely on the facts on the ground in Iraq -- or, rather, on American public perception of those facts. And it should.
As long as most Republicans want to fight and win the war in Iraq, a conflict they see as the irrefutable central front in the global war on terror, while most Democrats want to cut and run, then the American people are faced with one prohibitively important decision.
The global war on terror, while often referred to as a new or different kind of war, is shaping up to share several similarities with the Cold War. The opponents are not nations, exactly, but two fundamental, irreconcilable philosophies. On one side is Western, capitalistic, democratic liberalism, tolerant of and sustained by scientific and philosophical curiosity and informed by Judeo-Christian values. On the other side is theocratic, dictatorial Islamic fundamentalism, by definition intolerant of scientific or philosophical inquiry (let alone dissent). It is not simply informed by the Quran but insistent upon obedience to Sharia law, including its terrifying demands for unending, violent jihad against anyone who refuses to bow to Muhammad's 7th-century proposition, "Submit or die."
Considering the war on terror thusly, why would anyone show more than passing interest in Rudy Giuliani's flat tax or Hillary Clinton's "national conversation"? You want two Americas, John Edwards? How about these: the one we live in now, imperfect but freer and more prosperous than any nation on Earth, or the one we'll inhabit in 40 years if we stop fighting the terrorists, convert to Islam and start honor-killing our daughters and fitting our wives for burqas.
On the other hand, if Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrat Congress are successful in undermining the commander-in-chief (thereby emboldening the terrorists to kill more Americans in Iraq) and the media continues its relentless drumbeat of bad news, then Republican "win at all costs" rhetoric will be less attractive to voters tired of their sons dying halfway around the world.
Despite the continued unpopularity of the war's progress -- or, more to the point, its lack thereof -- Republicans are still on more solid ground than Democrats. First of all, there is a Republican position on the war: Win it. If we do win, Republicans in general, and President Bush in particular, will benefit greatly.
But that won't do forever. Come 2008, someone is going to have to stand up for the Democrats and explain to the American people that either: a) "Yes, we're at war, and here's how we're going to win it," and thus lose his base, or b) "No, we're not at war, and try to forget about the big hole in Lower Manhattan," and thus lose independents.
If things go well in Iraq, neither option will work; if they don't go well, … let's just say if I were a Democratic strategist, I'd still be looking really hard for a Plan C.